Division opponents in the playoffs can make for a memorable series
The first round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs are another clear sign that regular season head-to-head records are unreliable. The New Jersey Devils were 3-0 against the Tampa Bay Lightning, but they were eliminated in five games once the playoffs rolled around. Likewise, the Boston Bruins had struggled mightily with the Toronto Maple Leafs during the regular season, but overcame the Leafs in a seven game series that was the most compelling matchup of the first round.
While the Bruins did in fact win three out of four games against the Lightning, only one of those three wins was a convincing blowout of a game. The other two Tampa Bay losses came by narrow margins. In their November meeting, a third period charge by the Lightning led to a narrow loss. On March 29 at the TD Garden, a waved off would-be goal from Alex Killorn proved to be the bulk of the difference in the game. It was only that St. Patrick’s Day drubbing at Amalie Arena that should give Lightning fans concern.
What those matchups did suggest is that this is going to be one heated hockey series, both on the ice and in the stands. That big Boston sports market has rubbed a lot of others the wrong way, but perhaps nobody is sicker of people who call their town The Hub Of The Universe than the sports fans of Tampa Bay.
To get a full picture of what the Bruins are capable of, check out the NHL’s condensed games on Youtube. In a brilliant move, the league puts up what amount to eight minute highlight reels from a game, taking pretty much every important moment from a given hockey game to the time-starved hockey fan. It’s a great way to get a sense of what kind of team Tampa Bay is about to face on Saturday at 3:00.
The Matchup in Net
Ideally, a hockey player prefers to get the puck on his stick with nobody between him and the goaltender. That kind of one-on-the-goalie action leads to goals more often than any other situation. However, between Boston and Tampa Bay, that just might not be the case. Both goalies are very good at shutting down breakaway opportunities, and that’s because both netminders have fantastic vision.
If Tuukka Rask sees the puck, he is likely to stop it from crossing the mouth of the goal. If Andrei Vasilevskiy sees the puck, he can do things people have never seen before. There will be moments in this series where somebody gets in on the goalie all alone, and comes away empty-handed for all that trouble.
The key for the Lightning on offense, then, is traffic and chaos in front of the net. No goalie does particularly well with screens, because they cannot see the puck until it is right on them. These seeing-eye shots that sneak through traffic can be brutal, and for both of these teams it might turn out to be the best way to score.
In the Lightning’s sole win over the Bruins, second chance opportunities were critical, another product of chaos in front of the net. Rebound chances and players collecting the puck after an initial opportunity goes wide have served teams playing against the Bruins very well. That kind of chaos in front of net was a big reason that the Toronto Maple Leafs pushed the Bruins about as far as a team can be pushed in a series without losing.
Other keys to the series
First and foremost, the Lightning have to “own the dot.” That is, Tampa Bay needs to win their faceoffs. In their win against Boston near the end of the regular season, the Lightning were able to keep the Bruins away from net and limit their shooting opportunities.
As for the defense, they need to focus on stopping David Pastrnak. Pastrnak is the scoring engine of the Bruins, existence of Brad Marchand notwithstanding. When he’s firing on all cylinders, the Bruins are a much tougher team. Pastrnak was one of the stars of that game 7 that got the Bruins here, scoring a goal in the contest and being a lot of trouble for the Toronto Maple Leafs.
Puck movement is another key. The Lightning’s ability to cycle the hockey puck from player to player looms large in this series. That movement has led to many of the Bolts’ goals against Boston in the regular season, but this is something they need to be careful about. Long passes, especially long passes in the defensive zone, have been problematic for the Lightning to this point. Those risky passes that turn into turnovers often lead to opposing goals, and the Bruins have already shown in both the regular season matchups with Tampa Bay and their Eastern Conference Quarterfinal triumph over Toronto.
Boston plays misdirection hockey in their offensive zone. Opponents and everyone watching the hockey game will expect one player to crash the net and take a second chance opportunity, but the Bruins prefer to have a different person sneak in and get the goal.
About Brad Marchand
Brad Marchand is of course a looming figure. Everyone outside of Bruins fans seems to have a negative opinion of the guy. He plays like a pest, and his primary job is to get under an opponent’s skin. Few are better in the current NHL. He will do just about anything and everything to get on somebody’s nerves. This is so prevalent that the league may or may not have asked him to stop licking opponents. That’s not a typo: Licking. Also cuddling. Marchand has denied, via twitter, that this missive was sent out. He did not, however, deny that he has used his tongue to annoy an opponent. The Lightning’s mission with Marchand is to not let him bother them. That’s all he wants to do. He wants to get players so mad that they want to hit him, either with their fists or with their stick.
Marchand is the evolution of the “enforcer” in this way. The day of the “goon” type defenseman is gone, and as a result certain forwards are finding that they can take important players out of a game by goading them into penalties. Nobody in the league is as good at this as Brad Marchand, the embodiment of all the negative Boston Sports stereotypes.
If the Lightning can resist the temptation to slash, hook, or otherwise abuse Marchand, they will have a big leg up on the Boston Bruins. He will only be the key to the series if the Lightning allow him to be.
That strange building on Causeway Street
The TD Garden is a strange building by hockey standards. Or, more accurately, weird things just seem to happen on the ice there. At times, it can seem like the arena doesn’t want anyone to come away with the win, home team or not.
Several players in this series are familiar with the Garden’s impact on playoff hockey, thanks to their years in college and the building’s prominence in that world. It has hosted the Frozen Four several times, leading to one of the strangest moments in the history of the game of hockey. This moment decided a national championship final. Really.
The other college event the TD Garden hosts, and it does so every year in this case, is the Beanpot. Bruins rookies Charlie McAvoy and Ryan Donato have played in that tournament, but so too did Alex Killorn of the Tampa Bay Lightning. Killorn, who has been a big player for the Lightning in their playoff run, could be said to have learned playoff hockey in the hallowed halls of Harvard. He played in that annual February tournament, in front of what is always a hostile crowd for Harvard because Harvard brings the fewest fans. He already knows full well that the puck bounces funny off the back boards, and he will be prepared for everything that the Garden throws his way.
A special blue line matchup
Defensemen don’t really play against one another all that often, but in this series fans will be treated to two of the absolute best blue-liners in the sport going up against one another in Victor Hedman and Zdeno Chara.
Chara has an interesting NHL record to his name: He’s the largest individual player in the league’s history. He is a really big guy. Fans who attend the games will be struck by how he towers over other players. One might expect that due to his size he would hit hard simply because of the laws of momentum, but of course someone so tall has to be a good skater to compensate for an awkward center of gravity. Chara does that, and it helps him deliver devastating hits. His size and ability to find leverage also allows him to take some of the hardest shots hockey has ever seen, and expect one or two of his slapshots to be a challenge for Andrei Vasilevskiy.
Pick: Lightning in 5
The Tampa Bay Lightning had a good test for the Bruins in eliminating the New Jersey Devils in the quarterfinals. Boston is a better team than New Jersey, but the Lightning are at full force and eager to take the next step in their journey.
The Bruins will be a tough opponent. It will take everything the Lightning have to eliminate Boston. At the same time, they have everything it takes. The Bolts get rolling early, it’d be easier to stop an actual bolt of lightning.